The first thing I learn in French Polynesia is how little I need. A swimsuit is enough.
Ten years have passed since my last visit to the island of Moorea—a decade of longing to return to the color and clarity of this wide-open world in the South Pacific where nature dominates. After dropping my bag of unnecessary things at my beachside bungalow, I head to the sandy lagoon, easing into water as warm as a bath.
Halfway between California and Australia, French Polynesia isn’t a singular sensation but a mosaic of moods spread across 118 small islands and atolls (67 inhabited) and more than a thousand miles of ocean. It’s not a place of museums or hot spots, but rather an elemental destination of earth, water, air, fire, and something else even more elusive that I always feel but can barely explain. So I set out to find it again.
I use my hands as much as my feet to hike up into the tropical highlands of Moorea, in view of sister island Tahiti, a short ferry ride away. Pulling on smooth vines and hopping mountain brooks, I tromp upward through a rain forest of cool shadows and diaphanous orange and red flowers. To an outsider the plants are so outlandish they nearly seem fake, but my hands and nose let me know that everything is real.
My guide, Heinrich Tamatoa, knocks his fist against a gigantic furrowed tree trunk. A deep and bellowing boom echoes through the woods. “This is the mape tree—Tahitian chestnut,” he says, “carried to this island by the first Polynesians.” These ocean voyagers likely originated from Southeast Asia more than a thousand years ago, bringing with them taro and breadfruit, as well as pigs, dogs, and chickens.
Like a skeptical kid, I knock the hollow tree and another boom bellows skyward, past the high canopy of ancient wood. Tamatoa knows the name of every plant, tree, flower, and shrub, in French and Tahitian, as well as in the four other languages he speaks in his work as a guide. He knows the plants’ history and how they’re used. There are teas that promote health, leaves to make hats, and trees for building a canoe that will cross the ocean.
“For us Polynesians, nature is not separate,” Tamatoa explains. “We belong to the Earth.” The way he says it, I know that it’s not just a line that he feeds tourists, but something he believes personally. “I’m a hiking guide because I like being in the forest,” he says. “I like showing visitors our nature—how green and alive our island is.” Tamatoa is a French citizen, his passport emblazoned with the stars of the European Union, “but,” he insists, “I am a hundred percent Polynesian.”
Island riches lured Europeans and Americans to Polynesian shores. The legendary mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty took place after a layover in Tahiti. A deserter named Herman Melville jumped ship in the Marquesas and the experience inspired his first book. The long colonial struggle for control was finalized in 1880, when the king of Tahiti ceded these widely scattered islands to France. Almost 140 years later, parliamentary elections showed a span of attitudes toward France, with a strong vote of support for the independence parties. But it wasn’t enough to beat the status quo, whose campaign tagline politely proclaimed, Continuons Ensemble, or Let’s Continue Together.
It takes more than an hour hiking uphill to reach the knife’s edge of Moorea’s volcanic ridge, a steep black basalt wall. From the narrow lookout at Trois Cocotiers (Three Coconuts), I can see the whole of Moorea: the heart-shaped island, the gleaming turquoise of Opunohu Bay, and the unbroken carpet of green that sweeps from the shoreline up to the cartoonish peak of Mount Rotui.
Jagged mountains, dark volcanic soil, and steep rain forests exert their own power. Only from on high do I realize that land may be the forgotten element in the South Pacific, where neon blue lagoons dominate travelers’ Instagram feeds.
Every island in French Polynesia is unique, each with its own personality and affiliation to one of five island groups. Tahiti and the other Society Islands are the most visited, the Marquesas the most northerly, the Tuamotus the flattest, while the more southern Austral and Gambier archipelagoes remain virtually unvisited by foreigners. The biggest mistake a traveler can make is not to get past the romance of Tahiti or the honeymooner overwater bungalows of Bora Bora or even the emerald green Moorea. The Polynesian voyager spirit compels travelers to explore beyond each new horizon, and it’s that same spirit that pushes me to Huahine, a lesser known but lush garden isle bursting with jungle and giant flowers and top-heavy banana trees.
A quick plane hop northwest of Tahiti, Huahine has a gentle and unassuming air about it. Tourist formalities vanish so that, after a day, I feel a part of village life. Strangers hand me snacks of fresh pineapple and cut-open coconuts for me to drink. I am offered rides to islanders’ favorite spots: “Right here is the best place to watch the sunrise,” says an older lady who insists on driving me out of her way before bringing me back to my hotel, pointing out the flowers along the way—pink and white, bushy and fragrant, growing year-round in the living earth.
Sunrise is even more memorable underwater. Seventy feet below the ocean surface, suspended in the clear void outside Moorea’s reef, I focus my gaze on the 10-foot lemon shark just below me. Striped pilot fish hang about the timid giant, then scurry after him to darker and less conspicuous depths. I twist backward and see a parade of blacktip reef sharks following me like curious groupies.
My dive buddy, Mana, motions me forward, and we soar like slow dolphins over a coral meadow that glows with all the colors of cotton candy. Silvery fish, purple-tipped sea anemones, and giant clams fill the frame of my mask, an epic reminder that life is pulsing below the waterline.
Mana helps me back into the boat, where the captain is sitting back in his chair, singing softly and strumming a song on a Tahitian ukulele. “Mana means ‘life force’ in our language,” says Mana, explaining his name as we head back to shore. “It’s lucky to have a dive buddy that has mana—life,” he jokes.
In French Polynesia the ocean has great mana, from the gleaming black pearl inside a quivering oyster to the turtles and rays that hover in the shallows. At times it feels like nature is begging to connect, often when you’re least expecting it. My friend Helga told me about how, in Moorea’s Opunohu Bay, a magnificent juvenile humpback crashed a snorkeling party. “This huge and friendly creature stared right into my eyes,” she said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could snorkel with a whale.”
The abundance, accessibility, and scale of sea life make these islands an underwater paradise. For rare and natural encounters, in-the-know divers have discovered the Tuamotu Archipelago. Its Rangiroa and Tikehau islands offer amazing biodiversity, even for casual snorkelers, while serious shark fanatics flock to Fakarava. The long and wispy atoll seems barely wide enough for my plane to land, but inside the lagoon, the dark blue world transforms into a swirl of schooling sharks: tigers, hammerheads, tawny nurse sharks, and blacktips. Indeed, Fakarava lagoon is home to the highest concentration of gray reef sharks in the world; it’s where hundreds of the sleek animals dance in a slow-moving circle, following the contours of the island and utterly ignoring me. The scene is hypnotic; only the bubbles of my own breath clue me into my outsider status—bubbles that rise up to the golden surface and measure the distance between two worlds, water and air.
The warm ocean wind smells like ice cream. That is my first impression of Tahaa, a round-shaped island blanketed by vanilla farms. I think back to the times I have read “Tahitian vanilla” on some store label or restaurant menu; but here, the scent is homegrown. Vanilla is part of the landscape and the air I breathe. Even my clothes smell of vanilla—just one of the many treasures from the islands, along with coconut oil and incomparable black pearls.
The air carries all the aromas of Polynesia. Vanilla, yes, but also jasmine and the tantalizing and unique scent of the national tiare flower—a calming, sunny, lemony perfume. A garland of flowers is draped around my neck each time I set foot anew on an island. The hei (similar to the Hawaiian lei) is a sign of welcome, along with the light French kiss on both cheeks.
Sometimes the air feels ripe and heavy with humidity, and other times it’s a mild and constant breeze that tickles my neck and rustles a row of palm trees. Rainbows often paint the sky, arriving and fading by the hour.
“I love the rainbow of history we have,” a new friend tells me. His name is Marurai Trafton. “White, black, Chinese, Polynesian—we all live together and share our different stories,” he says. “When you live on such a small island, you have to take care of your community, your family, your neighbors, and everyone you live with.”
This is the heart of Polynesian culture, he explains. “You don’t have to spend a lot or do anything special. Just say Ia Orana [hello], take off your shoes indoors, and listen to others. On our island, when you don’t have money to give, you just give your time. That is how you show your respect.”
The spinning torches are a blur, blinding my eyes to the dancers in the dark. From my seat on the beach, I can feel the heat of the fire as the flames streak through the blackness, scrawling strange letters of light that vanish in the night. Like tattooed ghosts, the dancers’ faces flash in the orange blaze of the fire, their chants repeating a story that I have never heard but that tingles my spine all the same.
Every dance, every motion carries meaning. Despite centuries of Christian missionary influence and a population collapse brought on by diseases introduced by Europeans, the dances have survived in the Marquesas. Remote even by South Pacific standards, these islands maintain traditions that have disappeared elsewhere.
“The early missionaries outlawed all this—the tattoos, the dancing. They made the people cover their bodies and hide their culture,” says a Tahitian friend, Jack Lord. “If not for the Marquesas, all of this would be lost.” Marquesans proudly held onto their traditional beliefs long enough to fuel a cultural revolution that still burns across French Polynesia today.
Fire made these islands, one by one—millions of years of explosions erupting from the deepest part of the Earth. High islands like the Marquesas reflect younger volcanoes, while the low, flat atolls of the Tuamotus are all that remain from older, sunken volcanoes, ringed by coral reefs that now lie flat, as if floating on the ocean surface.
On July 2, 2019, a solar eclipse will pass directly over the Tuamotu Archipelago, completely darkening the sky for about three and a half minutes. When the moment of darkness passes, the ultimate fire—the sun—will return, moving through the sky, just like the spinning torches of fire dancers at night.
I am a foreigner and may never understand the true meaning of mana. But already I know that it alludes to an invisible element of these extraordinary islands. “It is all around us,” says Marurai, “in all the things we cannot see. It is my energy, your energy, how we feel toward one another.” Another friend, Gina Bunton, says, “I feel mana at sunrise or sunset, or every time I arrive on one of our islands. Mana is all around me. It’s what links me to my fenua—my country.” Even the Postimpressionist artist Paul Gauguin sought out mana when he arrived in 1891, seeking an escape from “everything artificial and conventional.”
The traditional Marquesan patutiki inspires contemporary tattoos, and travelers can receive a permanent souvenir, custom-designed by artists who know how to tap the secret language of symbols into the skin to carry mana from the artist to the recipient. Traditional tattoos become an outward symbol of a person’s mana.
Mana is also power, something real that you sense on the Society Island of Raiatea, a spiritual home for Polynesians, less than an hour’s flight from Tahiti. I walk around the weathered stones of the ancient Taputapuatea marae, an outdoor temple of sorts where Polynesian chiefs and priests and navigators met and learned and worshiped. Some historians believe that from this island the early Polynesians set off in migrations that led across the Pacific, from Hawaii to New Zealand and as far as Easter Island.
I may not be sure what mana is, but I can feel it here, where the white waves spray onto the hand-carved stones. I feel mana in the bright Milky Way that lights the sky at night in the Tuamotus. I see mana in the flying fish that bounce over the sea swell, in the cautious eel hiding in the red-orange coral, and in the billowy white dresses of women on their way to church. I hear mana in the stories told around the fire, in birdsong, and in the all-night strains of a beachside ukulele jam. All the mana I have felt stays with me, even now, after I have left—calling me back to an island where I need nothing else.
Andrew Evans is a writer and TV host for the National Geographic Channel. Follow him on Twitter @ WheresAndrew.